The Ultimate Fighting Championship touches down in Liverpool, England for the first time, and it will do so with a native son on the marquee. UFC Fight Night 130 goes down this Sunday from the Echo Arena, giving those of us across the pond a glorious midday Sunday card. No work Monday and an evening unfettered by six-plus hours of MMA? What could be better?
Well, a deeper card to start. Don’t get me wrong, the main attraction between hometown hero Darren Till and former two-time title challenger Stephen Thompson is fantastic. But beyond that there is almost nothing of note. Sure, prospects Makwan Amirkhani, Arnold Allen, and Tom Breese will fight for the first time in over a year, and Claudio Henrique da Silva returns after nearly four years on the shelf! You remember him, right? No?
It may be virtually the only attraction, but Darren Till’s homecoming is drawing comparisons to when Conor McGregor returned to Dublin, Ireland. My colleague Todd Martin laid out the stakes for Till. A win could be an iconic moment in front of a rabid crowd that rockets him toward stardom. A loss would be a massive disappointment that could derail his career for years to come. It is a rare thing to see this kind of drama play out for one man, especially outside a title fight.
It’s tough to know what a win does for “Wonderboy,” much less what the UFC wants out of him. Sherdog’s Anthony Walker provided a counterpoint to Martin’s article, explaining Thompson’s questionable ratio of reward to risk in this matchup. Prior to his lackluster two-part series with champion Tyron Woodley, Thompson was the favorite son, headlining two cards with masterful performances over Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. It even seemed the UFC was using Thompson to put a damper on MacDonald’s public free agency bid. Now, the South Carolinian is something of a forgotten man. He bounced back with a dominant win over Jorge Masvidal, but the UFC and fans have no desire to see Thompson challenge Woodley again. He’ll have to wait and see how the upcoming interim title situation shakes out. In the meantime, he just has to keep winning.
Let’s get to the analysis and picks for UFC Fight Night 130.
Thompson (14-2-1) vs. Darren Till
Odds: Thompson (+100), Till (-120)
As talented as he already is, Till is only 25. With his entire prime still ahead of him, maybe his bombastic proclamations that he will one day be the best ever are not completely far-fetched. But his breakout win at this point is over an undersized and shopworn Donald Cerrone coming off back-to-back losses. His other Octagon wins are against low- to mid-level talent. This fight will tell us a lot about where he is in his development and the level he’s prepared for.
Till is a southpaw with crushing weapons from his power left side. He likes to edge forward, his hands outstretched, taking full advantage of his reach and terrific head movement to push opponents back to the cage or bait them into counters. The Liverpudlian will fire the jab occasionally, but he mostly uses it to blind opponents. Behind it, he closes distance and lines up his missile of a left hand. Till primarily launches it down the pipe, but he can vary it to an uppercut or hook to find the right opening. The Astra Fight Team and Team Kaobon fighter will chew up the legs and body of his opponent with kicks, occasionally going upstairs as well. He doesn’t throw a ton of volume, landing just over three significant strikes per minute, but his forward pressure, power, and no-selling of his opponents’ strikes serves him well with the judges anyway.
If he can get his man against the chain-link, Till becomes a truly terrifying force. Instead of his straight left, he might catch panicky, ducking foes with hellacious elbows over the top. But his cross is what found Cerrone’s mug again and again until the American was fully compromised, and they often landed when he was within a step of the cage. Till can wrestle a bit, and he packs quaking power in his ground-and-pound, but both he and Thompson have strong takedown defense and an affinity for standup. Thus, this contest should play out mostly as a kickboxing battle.
Where Till has a few weapons that he alters slightly or employs in different ways - his left hand is also lethal as a back-stepping counter - Thompson has a library of striking techniques at his disposal. That unpredictability can help keep opponents tentative and reacting. The karate stylist switches stances, both of which are long with his hands low by his hips. He uses this stance and his repertoire of sidekicks to maintain distance exceptionally well, putting adversaries in range of his more lethal attacks. Despite the frequent stance switches, Thompson is right leg-dominant. When he is southpaw and it is forward, sidekicks are the order of the day. When he is orthodox, he swings more traditional round kicks. And the former title challenger also has a variety of spinning attacks - back kicks, spinning hook kicks, wheel kicks - which Jake Ellenberger can tell you about.
But for my money, what took “Wonderboy” to the next level was his counterpunching. His takedown defense also improved dramatically, aided by brother-in-law Chris Weidman. But his ability to catch opponents coming forward, which they inevitably want to do to get inside his kicks, and make them pay at close range as well, is what makes him such a difficult puzzle to solve. Without his quick, accurate, surprising punches, he is akin to Edson Barboza: flashy and dangerous, but ultimately beatable. He blew up Hendricks with right hands. The spinning back kick just drove the coffin nails in.
Thompson has been tagged along the fence before, but it is exceedingly difficult to pressure and corral him there consistently. Till is very good at just that, so perhaps he’ll get Thompson in that position more than others have been able to. He’ll need to take advantage of every opportunity because Thompson has never been finished. And at long range, he has more weapons and pushes a higher pace. Part of me needs to see Till take out an opponent of this caliber before I can pick him. Thompson has faced a multitude of ranked opponents of varying styles and beaten all of them, save the champion, who made him shockingly reluctant to let his offense go. As he did in Ottawa in 2016, “Wonderboy” quiets the hometown crowd and their favorite son, taking a unanimous decision.
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